Monday, April 2, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar Live on Broadway (Sony Pictures Television, Universal Television, Storyline Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions; “Live" on NBC-TV, April 1, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on NBC for a TV show both Charles and I had been interested in seeing: a 2018 “Broadway Live” revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice quasl-musical, quasi-opera, quasi-Passion Jesus Christ Superstar. Andrew Lloyd Webber has been in the news a lot lately, mainly because he just published his autobiography, and he was apparently personally involved in this production: the opening credits listed “Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber” (it’s commonplace in musicals for someone other than the composer to do the orchestrations; when Kurt Weill arrived in the U.S. in 1935 his producers were astonished that he insisted on orchestrating his own songs) and he and Tim Rice, the original librettist, were listed among the many co-producers — I guess they’ve made up after their major falling-out just before Cats, for which Lloyd Webber (like Ralph Vaughan Williams, his last name is two words with no hyphen) seized on a pre-existing text, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot. Jesus Christ Superstar was Lloyd Webber’s second musical (his first, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, was also based on a Bible story) and one which was an explosive success starting in 1969, when the British branch of MCA Records released it as an album. It got mountings both in London and on Broadway, and was turned into a movie in 1973 — I remember my mother and I were in a movie theatre when the trailer for the Jesus Christ Superstar film came on, and when she saw African-American Carl Anderson as Judas, she said, “Oh, no, they didn’t make Judas Black.” Well, this time around they made both Jesus and Judas Black, and made most of the Pharisees Black as well — indeed, this Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski (I suspect Rudzinski directed the dance portions and Leveaux the “plot” parts), was cast with a cheery indifference to racial realism that’s become common in the last 60 years or so of opera performance, which in a way was nice. 

Jesus was played by John Legend, who was fine in the role’s quieter moments but was a singularly uncharismatic (a word with religious connotations I’m using deliberately here) screen presence — it didn’t help that he appeared with close-cropped hair, as he normally does, instead of the wild Afro worn by the accompanying band’s lead guitarist (who was frequently seen on screen) or Rasta braids that would have looked more credible on a Black actor playing Jesus. When the score called for him to scream Legend came up with a heavy-metal falsetto that was O.K. but didn’t seem to mesh all that well with the rest of his voice. The Judas was Brandon Victor Dixon, a nice hunk of Black muscle-meat who was considerably more powerful, with a stronger stage presence, than his Jesus — but then that’s a problem with the story overall: nobody who’s tackled the Jesus story, from the original Gospel writers since, has really come up with much of an explanation for What Made Jesus Run, and Tim Rice’s libretto falls into the common trap of a lot of stories: the villain is a far more interesting dramatic character than the hero. It also doesn’t help that Jesus Christ Superstar falls into the common trap of the Passion Play generally: it makes the Jewish elders, particularly Caiaphas (another Black actor, Norm Lewis, wearing a costume that makes him look like an S/M dungeon master — indeed, the two men who arrest Jesus in Gethsemane wear leather jackets and hoods which make them look like Caiaphas pulled them out of the middle of a hot scene for the job), far more responsible for the Crucifixion than Pilate (played by a white actor, Ben Daniels, who delivers his lines in the screaming-queen manner of Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook in the 1960 telecast of the Mary Martin Peter Pan), who’s shown as genuinely doubting and anxious for Jesus to do something, anything, that will give him an excuse to spare him the Cross and at least commute his sentence to life imprisonment if not setting him free altogether. 

O.K., that’s the bad news: the good news is that Jesus Christ Superstar, which I hadn’t seen or heard much of in any form in the last 40 years, holds up as a surprisingly strong piece of material, one of the few Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that holds up all the way through instead of resolving itself into a few Great Moments in the midst of a lot of sludge. The directors managed to maintain a strong level of energy throughout, even during the rather wimpy numbers featuring Mary Magdalene (Sara Bareilles), and though this was billed as a concert performance it was actually quite extensively staged. Yes, it’s in modern dress (which I don’t have a problem with because the contrast between Biblical and modern times is built into the text), and some of it gets pretty banal (more Tim Rice’s fault than Lloyd Webber’s — “I always thought that I’d be an apostle,” really?), but the production maintained a high energy level throughout and made a good case for Lloyd Webber’s score even though his orchestrations rely almost totally on a rock ensemble and use the strings only as decoration on the ballads. Charles and I both wished for a more concerto grosso approach in which the rock musicians would have been used as a concertante section and a full symphony orchestra as the tutti, but I suspect Lloyd Webber didn’t go that route partly because rock was the popular music of the late 1960’s (it’s long since been replaced by rap and dance-pop at the top of the charts today!) and partly because if he’d made the score more symphonic he’d have run the risk of being invidiously compared to Bach. 

And this production of Jesus Christ Superstar also had a lot of hot young male flesh on stage that was fun to watch for reasons much less exalted than the story: I particularly liked the hot young blond with the Mohawk who actually got one featured number, while Philip Toubus, a.k.a. Paul Thomas, added a cute twink to the mix of Black and white muscle guys as Peter (though I didn’t like the hint that he and Mary Magdalene were going to get together after the Crucifixion — as if the Magdalene was about to revert to her old ways and throw herself at everything with two legs and something between them), though I didn’t like the fact that they cut the “Simon Zealotes” number in which Simon (another Black actor, Larry Marshall) tries to get Jesus to throw anti-Rome political digs into his message and Jesus refuses. There’s one other problem with Jesus Christ Superstar; for some reason Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t provide Jesus a big closing aria to sing on the cross (I think Paul Simon’s song “Blessed” would work in this context, but Lloyd Webber would probably never give his necessary permission for the interpolation), and in this production they had Jesus speak a rather confused pastiche of the lines from the Gospels before he almost literally beamed up skyward — after Judas, who is shown hanging himself come scritto (we don’t actually see the hanging — a pity, since Alice Cooper, who played Herod, had hanged himself on stage in his early-1970’s shows, wearing a steel magician’s collar — though one night something went wrong and his stagehands noted a thin trickle of blood from his mouth, realized something was “off” and had to get him down in a hurry — but we do see the ladder on which he hoisted himself to the backstage scaffolding fall), returns to life for the closing “Superstar” number which sums up the questioning but not totally irreverent spirit with which Lloyd Webber and Rice approached the story: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you, what have you sacrificed/Jesus Christ, superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” 

At times Jesus Christ Superstar approaches the critique of the original story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who once wrote a whimsical essay saying that Judas was the real son of God since he had to betray Jesus for Him to get crucified and sacrifice his life to redeem the sins of humanity. I found myself quite liking Jesus Christ Superstar this time around — more, I suspect, than I did when it was new (though I did find it strange that the producers cast Alice Cooper, rock legend, in a role in which his only song was a pastiche of 1920’s pop, which they staged as if it were a Cotton Club number), and I’m hardly likely to agree with the Fundamentalists who picketed the show’s Broadway opening in 1971 with signs with legends like “Jesus Christ Superstar SON OF GOD” even though fictions like Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ and Martin Scorsese’s film of it bring us closer to the contradictions of the original material and make the character of Jesus deeper and richer than he is here. At least this was better than the God-awful Easter show Fox put on two years ago, a live event called The Passion that took place in a stadium and the streets of New Orleans and tried to set the Passion Play to a pastiche of pre-existing rock songs; at the time I wrote that I’d rather they use a pre-existing rock-pop setting of the Passion like Jesus Christ Superstar or Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell instead, and this year NBC answered that particular prayer.